Tag Archives: perennials

May Flowers & Other Nice Things Around the Yard

Red Hawthorn --Crateagus iracunda

Red Hawthorn –Crateagus iracunda

So I’ve become interested in learning the names of plants growing wild around me. I “blame” (in the best, most thankful way) this on a local herbalist/organic farmer, Cynthia, at Piper’s Knoll Farm just over the town line in neighboring Newfield, Maine. Cynthia has begun offering monthly foraging and identification walks, and after participating in the first one a week ago, I’ve been compulsively LOOKING.

A simple walk up the road now becomes a wild-things expedition. This week I was drawn to the white flowers on this shrub, and, looking more closely, I was captivated by the dark pink anthers clustered in five pairs of stamen on this red hawthorn. NOT that I knew it was a red hawthorn. I had to go home and look it up. Which is fabulous fun, kinda like a treasure hunt, so thank you, Cynthia!

I don’t even have to walk up the road to explore the wild things and not so wild things around me. So what else is growing around my yard right now?

Two days from Memorial Day, the garden boxes begged me to plant something even though it is risky here in Maine to jump the gun. At the Newfield Farmer’s Market this morning, I couldn’t resist purchasing the first few plants–a lavender perennial to go next to the French tarragon, three varieties of tomatoes (going into the box over the septic tank in hopes the heat will appeal to them), a green bell pepper, and a sage. Except for the lavender, they all went into that same box so I could cover them with a sheet last night. I may be impatient, but I’m not completely out of my mind.

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Neighbor Debbie was kind enough to give me a lemon balm from her garden, so I stuck that in the garden box as well, right next to the chocolate mint. That mint will be watched, of course, as we all know how they like to spread and spread.

Now for Mother Nature’s garden beds. These plants live near or beneath the beech trees in front of my house. It’s a forest in miniature!

Wild Strawberries, Fragaria virginiana

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Partridge Berry (Squaw Vine) Mitchella repens

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Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium acaule

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Fringed Polygala, Polygala paucifolia

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Starflower, Trientalis borealis

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Canada Mayflower,Maianthemum canadense

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False Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum racemosum

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It is so much fun to walk around the property now. I am determined to get myself a plant identification guidebook, though the internet is a great resource, as is Neighbor Debbie who has documented many of the native plants species over the past couple of years.

What do you have growing wild in your yard? When you find a minute to take off the gardening gloves and set down your trowel, drop me a line. Remember, it doesn’t get more local than your own back yard.

My Gardening Arsenal

Garden Arsenal

Dear Reader:

There have been so many cool local goings-on I hardly know where to start: do I finally blog about my incredible Goodwill fashion finds? Or the awesome certified organic farm stand up the road? Or my trip to the Portland Museum of Art plus dinner at locally-owned restaurant, Nosh? Or the wedding shower I went to recently for my cousin’s fiance (Hi, Holly:) where the presents were either local, organic, natural, homesteady (think canning jars and cookbooks, perennials and pot-holders) or… red wine?

With so many topics, I chose the most local of all: my front yard garden.

Straw bale in May

Remember this?

Now it looks like this!

Straw Bale in July

There is a real difference between the tomato plants on the house-end of the bales and the road-end. I think the house-end plants get just a smidge more sunlight…enough to make a huge difference, not just in tomatoes but also in the pumpkin plants on the very ends as well as the corn and beans on the ground below. (I couldn’t resist a Three-Sisters planting or four!) While the Early Girls are already ripening and the two German Striped heirlooms are setting on fruit, the large brandywine in the center back bale has an issue. There have been plenty of blossoms, but then, sadly, the blossoms break off at the stem-bend just where the plant should be pumping some energy to create a band of strong material to hold a big, plump, juicy fruit.

Thinking maybe I’d either over-nitrogened the thing and underfed it some other vital nutrient, I got down to Plummer’s Hardware to pick up some organic fertilizer specifically for tomatoes and veggies. This one has nitrogen, posphate, potash, calcium and sulfer made from feathers, poultry manure, cocoa meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, greensand, humates, sulfate of potash, and gypsum. Ask for Espoma Organic Tomato-tone at your local garden center. I noticed a big difference right away in all the ‘matoes…they all grew even taller and lusher within the week. Now I’m waiting to see if old brandywine there actually sets on some more fruits other than the two bottom ones that popped out just after getting home from Snell’s greenhouses.

Healthy Bee Balm

Now, some of you long-time readers will remember my past gardening woes including powdery mildew and Japanese Beetles. (See Of Pests and Powdery Mildew from August 2010) I am sad to report that the beetles are back, along with new friends–aphids and ants. My poor crabapple tree is an infested mess!

It’s my own fault. People gave me advice about sprinkling some kind of powder underneath to kill the beetle larvae. Instead, I planted garlic around the tree, hoping it would somehow repel the pesky pests. No such luck, though I do hope to have some green garlic soup very soon. In the meantime, I continue with my usual methods of pest control: a jar of bleach water for the beetles and a quick pinch and pull to get rid of the aphids and the ants milking them. Yes, ants “raise” aphids and milk their secretions. Gross, except, well, think about us with cows and goats. By the time I get to the aphid farms, the little stem or branch of the tree is pretty sick and generally comes right off in my fingers. Then those ants get angry and bite me! I’m serious. They are NOT happy to lose their farm at all. I say, go west, young ant!

And then there is the powdery mildew. Now, you all know my thoughts on trying to be a food producer here on my wooded, exurban, one-acre lot. It’s pretty much an exercise in futility, really. I keep trying new things, but in the end I may be defeated. I thought I’d come to terms with the pine and beech tree shade and the sunny but tragically unusable leach field. The new garden boxes were to be my saving grace, my compromise with reality. I could practice vegetable gardening in the miniature, experiment with many types of plants, and treat said veggies like highly-irregular ornamentals…that I could nibble. They do look fabulous. See how the pink & black box has grown.

On May 30th

This was Memorial Day weekend.

July 18 garden box

Now, the cucumbers are running like crazy, and by that I mean they are flowing out of the box and onto the ground like leafy snakes. Tiny cuke-spikes grow behind the pretty yellow blossoms, fatten, and lengthen until they just aren’t pickling size anymore at which point I pluck them, peel them, and serve them on salad for dinner.

Beautiful Cuke

I’ve picked six of these babies so far…and there are more to come as long as nothing happens to them. The zucchini are blossoming. The summer squash are already beginning to fruit. All looks well until…

I notice the big patch of bee balm in my front perennial bed, just beside the cuke and squash boxes, is covered in powdery mildew! Now, we’ve had so much heat and humidity that I shouldn’t have been surprised. A little more research, and I learned that overcrowded conditions also contribute to the mold problem. That bed was looking a little crowded this year. Looking back at previous photos, I see that some of the old plants in the bed had powdery mildew in previous years, so the spores were probably there in the ground just waiting to bloom.

No matter. What mattered was that if I did nothing, that mold would spread to the just-about-to-produce squash and cukes and kill all my hopes and dreams for fresh garden salads and zucchini cooked over the grill and summer squash casserole. I got out my gardening blades and chopped that darn bee balm right off and buried it in a pile of leaves in the woods far from the boxes. Now my perennial bed looks like a second-grade boy with a summer buzz-cut and I’ve pretty much decided to plant shrubs in that spot this fall (rhododendron? azalea? winterberry?).

Squash Blossoms

In the meantime, my cucurbits are in grave danger. I noticed one small summer squash had already turned brownish on the blossom end and had gone soft and limp. It was dying, if not already dead. And this was before one sign of mildew on the leaves! I did moreresearch and learned that while you can’t reverse an infestation of mold, you can prevent it with anti-fungal sprays. There are commercial products, but I was intrigued by the remedy recommended on a number of organic gardening sites: baking soda, vegetable oil, and water.

Now, the baking soda is supposed to change the pH of the leaves, making them inhospitable to the powdery mildew. The oil helps the solution cling to the leaves. I made mine with 1 tablespoon soda, 1 tablespoon Maine sunflower oil, and 1 quart of water. I mixed it in a pitcher, poured it into a plastic spray bottle, and sprayed all the leaves on top and underneath after fertilizing and watering this morning. A healthy plant is much less susceptible to any sort of pest or problem.

Why do I have powdery mildew problems, anyway? Simple. Mold likes moisture and heat. We’ve had high humidity and high temperatures. In addition, my lot is surrounded by tall trees acting very effectively as windbreaks. Nice in the winter (except when said trees fall over), but in the summer that means the tops of the trees across the road may be tossing in the wind, but in my garden the pretty little set of chimes Hubby gave me doesn’t even let out a single cling…or clang, for that matter. In other words, we get no air circulation thanks once again to the trees.

I pulled the peas up today to give the zucchini and summer squash in that box a little more breathing room. Hopefully that will help. But to be honest, I may not do veggies again. Or else, forget the cucurbits. I can buy plenty at the local farm stands and farmer’s markets.

On a happy note, an application of tomato food to the greens boxes has made a huge difference. Take a look!

Romaine and Greenleaf and Chard

Small cukes, green beans, spinach, lettuce

Out of the micro micro-greens that refused to grow, I decided to pluck up everything but the spinach which looked somehow…different, as if it had potential. My instincts appear to be correct as it is now growing nicely behind the shade of the green beans. Perhaps the greens boxes get more sun than they need? Maybe I should grow a sheltering row of flowers or something in the front squares next year? The last-ditch planting of kale seeds in all the squares where nothing grew has produced some sprouts, so perhaps a fall crop of greens will be forthcoming after all.

What I’ve learned? Fertilizer helps. I love the idea of using only home-produced or at least locally-produced compost, but I’m beginning to suspect that in order to get all the nutrients needed for a really good crop in a box, a balanced fertilizer is a necessity. In a double-dug bed, some of those nutrients would be present in the soil, and perhaps a yearly application of good, home-grown compost from the remains of plants grown in those beds would suffice. Or maybe growing a cover crop of some nitrogen-dense plant would work. But in these self-contained garden boxes? I think a little extra additive is a necessity.

Which brings me back around to my other point. Do I continue to play with vegetables? Or do I simply work with ornamentals and use my money to support the local farmers? Imagine what they could have done with the $200 plus I spent on straw bales, boxes, compost, additives, seedlings, seeds, etc. Probably fed a couple of families, while I get few handfuls of peas, some pickling-size cucumbers, thirty or forty tomatoes (please, oh please!), some basil, some squashes…

It all depends on what happens with those squashes, people! If they don’t work out, I will cast around for another direction for my one-acre “homestead.” I still have this idea about growing shiitake mushrooms

Stay tuned for more … Outside the Box.

Beware the Iris!

Grape Kool-Aid Iris (at least that’s what I call it!)

I love the way these irises smell…just like their color. Grape Kool-Aid.

Their blooms blossom and fade quickly, two or three to a stem, but oh the heavenly scent while they are open and beckoning to the fat bumble bees that crawl into and out of them spreading pollen from plant to plant in that glorious symbiosis of nature. Sometimes the bee’s buzzing grows alarmed, higher-pitched, as she struggles to escape the perfumed interior of the flower.

Today, I crawled out of a similar enticing trap, and I’m hopeful I will make a clean getaway. A year or so ago, in order to enter a contest, I wrote a short-short story and published it on an e-publisher. What I didn’t consider at the time was that the story was “out there” forever. Published but not doing anything. Just sitting there. I couldn’t revise it and submit it anywhere, and the thing was, I wanted to revise it. I’d grown attached to the storyline and the character. It could have been so much more!

So, today I canceled my account with the e-publisher and tried to “retire” the story. It is still coming up when I type the title and my name into a search engine…the image for it anyway. The content is unavailable.

Now the question is…am I free to revise and resubmit? I don’t know. I think I will revise it for my own pleasure, and if it is worthy, I will send it out with full disclosure of its checkered, e-pubbed past.

Lesson? Be careful when you enter contests. Sometimes a contest isn’t a contest. Sometimes it is a marketing tool to lure potential “clients” close–like the sweet smell of the iris, luring bees into her velvety, purple petals for her own purposes.

A Time to Sow

Pink & Black Ornamental Garden Box

Dear Reader:

There I was yesterday, crouched down next to the garden boxes, dropping miniscule seeds into warm compost, patting a covering of compost over the “babies,” and dreaming of how the boxes will look when the seedlings emerge and begin to grow.

Moth & Chive in the “sunny” perennial bed

Giant bumblebees buzzed around and into the self-propagated purple and pink columbine. Moths and monarch butterflies visited the puffy heads of chives. Birds called. My fingernails turned black, and I didn’t care. I just kept dreaming of the months to come when I could sit and watch the plants grow.

Heirloom tomatoes in straw bale

The day before, after a $100 trip through the greenhouses at Snell’s Family Farm, I had all the starter plants on my list, plus more.

First, the tomatoes. I went with three Early Girl tomatoes, one brandywine called “Mortgage Lifter,” and two green-striped German heirloom tomatoes to go in the straw bales.

Digging out spaces in the bales was tough work. My father was visiting and helped with this chore while Mom watered and carted the extra straw to the compost pile for recycling. The bales were moist and beginning to break down inside nicely, creating some heat that I hope will make for happy tomato plants. After digging into the bales, I put in a couple handfuls of compost, stuck the plant in, and filled in with more compost. Following directions from my straw-bale gardening booklet, I then pressed on a layer of potting soil along the tops of each bale and planted spinach to grow in the shade beneath the toms.

Straw Bale with Front Garden Boxes

On the ends, a circle of pumpkin seeds will hopefully produce a few orange globes come fall. To go along with the “fall harvest” theme of my bales, I took a chance and planted a few corns seeds and some beans on the ground beside the bales. This is now a Three Sisters garden: corn, beans, squash. I’m not expecting much in the way of corn, but the stalks will look festive with the bales and the pumpkins if it all works out.

Inside the Garden Box

As for the boxes, I squished as many varieties into them as I could, intermixing veggies and flowers for visual appeal and maybe to also attract beneficial insects like bees. Already the hummingbird zipped down for a look-see yesterday.

Here is a list of what I planted this weekend:

Herb Box–basil, camomile, calendula, dill, rosemary, fennel, sage, pole beans.
Pink & Black Box–red cabbage, chocolate mint, geranium, Japanese shiso, cucumber, sweet potato vine, petunias.

Salvia & Red Cabbage

Diamond Design Box–salvia, red cabbages, cucumber (and I think something else but I can’t quite remember so it will be a mystery until something comes up between the cabbages.)

Sungold cherry tomato in a pot.

Root crop Box–small onions, carrots, parsnips, radishes, eggplant, geranium.

Peas & Pepper Box–peas, chili peppers, zucchini, summer squash.

Four Greens Boxes–Green leaf, arugula, romaine, greens mix, spinach, a leftover red cabbage, a cherry tomato, a zucchini, a few small onion is a square, and green beans and leftover cukes.

Phew! I spent the better part of two days planting and then sat outside to drink a glass of tea and enjoy the view. I took a shower and went to bed.

After midnight, around 1 a.m., the light show started…a tremendous thunderstorm that ripped through the sky for four hours, dropping torrential rains and some hail. All I could think was, “What about my itty-bitty seeds? What about my tomato plants?”

Luckily, the plants seem fine this morning. Now I have to chose: dig up the soil and replant the seeds or wait for ten or twelve days to see what, if anything, emerges from the compost. I think I’ll wait.

The weather forecast is calling for more t-storms, and I have to go to work at the library today—unlike this luna moth who has been literally hanging around all over my house for a week.

Luna Moth

What is she doing, I wonder? Resting? Waiting to take the next stage in her journey? Maybe that is the lesson for today. It’s all about timing. Rest when you need to. Look forward to the next stage in your journey. Soar when the time is right.

If there ever was a time to sow the seeds of change, it is now. What kind of future do you envision for yourself, your community, the world? What can you plant now for a better tomorrow…in your garden or Outside the Box?

Eggsellent Spring Supper

Spring Herbs

Dear Reader:

It may be hard to believe, but the garden, thanks to perennial herbs, produced ingredients for a wonderful, fresh-tasting spring supper before I even sent in my order to Johnny’s Seeds yesterday.

Perennial herbs are a gift of spring. Nestled up beside the first little feather fronds of yarrow and the recently divided rudbekia are the healthy clumps of reliable chives. The first grayish-purple flower heads poke up through the succulent spikes, and a few snips of the cooking shears yield a small handful of spicy, slightly oniony flavor.

Chives

Another unassuming, grassy-looking clump perfumes my fingers with the slight scent of liquorice when I roll a blade between thumb and finger. This is French tarragon–useful in soups, sprinkled on roasting chicken or vegetables with olive oil, or stuffed into a bottle of vinegar where it will impart its Mediterranean essence to that humblest of condiments.

French Tarragon

A short walk down to the perennial bed beneath the beech trees, my tiny but refuses-to-die thyme plant has put out new green leaves. I snip a few sprigs, roll a leaf between my fingers to inhale the woody aroma. Thyme is good, of course, in chicken soups and other stews. It is also remarkably yummy with eggs…and this is what I’m intending for this night’s supper.

Fresh Thyme

Bouquet in hand, I stroll to the house. From my ‘fridge comes a carton of locally-raised eggs; delicate shells in various hues indicate a mixed flock. The chickens that produced these eggs get plenty of protein from insects and plenty of fresh air and grass to scratch in. Their beaks haven’t been clipped. They have room to move. The yokes inside the eggs are golden-orange and plump, healthy, reassuring.

If only I’d thought ahead and purchased some local chevre, I think as I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl and pour them into a buttered skillet on the stove. Instead I make do with some sharp cheddar and feta from the Limerick Market. I vow to try making my own mozzarella soon.

Sprinkling on the chopped herbs, I flip over one side of the set egg mixture. I pop a slice of my homemade bread into the toaster, tuck a handful of organic spring mix (Note to self: next year, use cold frames and start greens early!) onto a large plate, and slide the omelet next to the greens. A little butter on the toast and bon appetit!

Simple Dinner

If I’d started an asparagus bed, could I have added that to my meal, I wonder? Is Maine asparagus ready this early? Another note to self: create asparagus bed this year.

As for greens, I could have harvested all the dandelion any girl could want…wild food is even better than perennial food. (See “Not Your Grandmother’s Dandelion Greens.”) I have the store-bought greens, though, and the dandelions aren’t going anywhere.

Dandelions

Now, imagine some homemade hard apple cider to go along with this meal. Or some home-fries from local or backyard potatoes instead of the toast. Rhubarb pie for dessert. I wanted a quick meal, but the possibility for something more substantial is all right there–inspired by the fresh flavors of perennial spring greens. If you have even a small area in which to plant, these hardy and versatile herbs would serve you well.

Ephemeral Spring

Crabapple Blossoms

Dear Reader:

So we’ve had one of those kind of springs. An overcast, rainy, drizzly, foggy, chilly, turn-on-the-furnace, will-the-sun-ever-come-out, I’m-gonna-stick-my-head-in-an-oven-if-it-doesn’t-clear-up-soon spring. Despite the lack of sunlight, I fell in love with Spring this year. The beauty overwhelmed me.

The budding leaves on the trees glowed neon green. Every window in my house framed dazzling squares of bright, yellowy-green glaze, and every trip into town offered views of wide, verdant expanses from the ridges overlooking lush valleys of oak and maple and birch and beech trees budding out after a long, snowy winter.

My Reiki instructor reminded me that green is the color of the heart chakra, the energy center that corresponds with compassion, unconditional love, forgiveness, faith, receptivity, and acceptance. Either all that green was feeding my heart chakra, or my heart chakra was so energized I was drawn to all that green, or perhaps the energy and the color and the season were all just aligned for me this year so that despite the rain and gloom I was able to feel hope and love and faith for a brighter future.

Later in the season, the light color will deepen into emerald and forest and moss, but this early spring . . . well, it was all golden-green, the color Robert Frost wrote about in his short poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Award-winning poet, Dana Gioia, wrote an excellent essay about Frost’s 1923 poem. In the essay,“On Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Gioia contrasts this type of short poem with more the formalized forms of sonnets and epigrams. He talks about the construction of the poem, simplicity of the words Frost chose to use, and the movement from nature themes to philosophical observation about the passage of time.

Exuberant Rhubarb

This poem could be depressing, like the rainy weather, a note on the ephemeral qualities of youth giving way to duller attributes. Okay, true, but here’s the thing about life–it goes in cycles. Yes, this rainy yet somehow bright green spring will yield to summer and heat and dust and shady spots beneath the mature leaves of the trees. And, yes, the leaves will dry up and fall in autumn, and the branches will seem bare and dead through another long winter, but then . . . Spring, once again!

Lamium Maculatum

Nowhere is this more apparent than in my perennial flower beds. Year after year, these plants die back in the fall and then come back to life once again in the spring, bursting out of the cold wet ground and spreading themselves up and out to catch the fall of rain and (theoretically this year) the rays of sunlight.

Most of these plants are divisions from friends’ and my mother’s flower beds, and because I’ve never been too interested in the science of horticulture (I’m more interested in having pretty gardens) I rarely even bother to find out the names of the plants. A quick search this morning for “purple flowers ground covers” brought up pictures that seemed to match my bunchy cluster of purple flowers with heart-shaped leaves that grows on the north-east side of my front steps. If I’m right, this is Lamium maculatum, a ground-cover than does well in partial shade. It has come back bigger and better than ever each year. I highly recommend this hardy perennial if you are more of a putterer and less of a horticulturalist in the garden.

Another Lamium

This is another Lamium, with the more characteristic dark-rimmed silvery foliage and pink flowers. I love the way it looks against the rock, so delicate and pretty.

Trillium erectum

Meanwhile, out in Nature’s garden, otherwise known as “the woods” or “the side of the road,” this red Trillium briefly blazed like the red star she is. My friend Sandi (check out her Waughtercolors artwork on deviantART) and I noticed these beautiful ephemerals while on an early-morning bike ride one cloudy-but-not-quite-rainy spring day. Spring ephemerals are woodland plants that bloom and go to seed very quickly. Like Frost’s spring gold, they quickly fade to something less spectacular, but while they are here, oh boy! Beautiful. And maybe all the more appreciated because of their ephemeral quality?

Like youth and poetry. For me, a poem is an ephemeral thing, capturing a brief moment in time, a fleeting feeling, an impression.

When I was newly graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington, I got it into my head to write a sonnet sequence. I was inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGUESE.
I was young. I was in love, newly married. I wanted to chronicle that time in my life. So I wrote 48 poems. Three are lost. I think I sent them to a magazine and when they were returned in my SASE, I failed to put them back in the pile. I didn’t know back then that my urge to create poetry would fade, like the browning blossoms I wrote about that spring in 1992. Lately, though, that poetic part of me has regenerated, perhaps part of a creative cycle like Gaia’s seasons?

Anyway, most of the sonnets are horrible (I keep them for sentimental reasons), but I’ll share one not so horrible one that seems appropriate to the season. Enjoy this brief season, Dear Reader. Summer is right around the corner.

A FEW BLOOMS BROWNING

I

I used to climb into the apple trees,
their white-pink blossoms browning in the heat
of waning spring, and dangling dusty feet
and toes in childish peace among the leaves,
I began to dream of love. The breeze
that swayed the branch was new and sweet
with whispers I would blow to meet
the wind. How easily it was to please
the innocence of me until I sighed
another moment at the solitary sound
a songbird made upon an upper bough.
Weighted with the song, I sat and cried
because that sad and sudden beauty tore
from me the child that I had been before.

Rock On!

I (heart) rocks!

Dear Reader:

Last week, just before the black-flies made their Spring 2010 debut, I managed to treat my perennial beds to an application of compost/manure from bags I purchased at my local, trusty Plummer’s Hardware store here in town (where I always find whatever I’m looking for–from mop buckets to paint chips to bird seed to fishing line. I swear, everyone needs a Plummer’s Hardware in his/her life. If you persist in going to those big, boxy hardware stores you are missing out!)

This year, Plummer’s has a wide variety of manure, humus, and compost from which to chose as they recently added Coast of Maine products to their selection. Square-foot gardening recommends using a smorgasbord of composts in order to assure adequate nutrients, so I was pleased to see this addition to the stash in front of the store. I hauled ten bags of these amendments home in the back of my husband’s big, red truck and announced to him that, yes, okay, sometimes the behemoth earns its keep. Most days, I curse its very existence as I find it extremely difficult to park in the tiny spaces of school and office-building parking lots, not to mention the small lot beside the Clipper Merchant Tea House where I love to go for a nice pot of Earl Grey and the soup of the day.

Anyway, I digress. Along with the organic compost, I also turned a bunch of old, spent beech leaves into the seven-year-old beds. Some beech leaves hang on tenaciously all winter and only drop to the ground when the new buds emerge in the spring. I don’t know why this is, but it means that I have to rake not only in the fall, but also in the spring when the stiff breeze picks up these lingering bits of cellulose and swirls them onto the lawn and into the emerging greenery in my gardens. Usually I rake them out, dig in the compost, and then sprinkle wood chips on top for a mulch. I was talking about this to a fellow gardener who informed me that if I simply turned the leaves into the soil, the worms would transform them into rich castings, helping to build up the nutrients in the garden over the summer while I lounged around sipping iced tea this July.

Well, I added that bit about the iced-tea, but you get the point. The worms do the bulk of the work later if I do a little front-loaded work now. Good deal!

While thus engaged in spreading and digging, I realized that my formerly-brilliant idea to edge perennial beds with rocks was not so brilliant after all. After seven years or so, the rocks were mostly covered with soil and grass and left a narrow strip of bare dirt between the garden edge and the cement walkway that had been poured a few years after I’d established the flower beds. Looking down, I figured that if I dug the rocks out of the garden, I could gain a nice five or six inch wide strip of soil in which to plant things like chamomile, oregano, catmint, parsley, and maybe even some lavender. (Click on the green lettering to get more info).

The herbs will make a nice, fragrant edge against the cement. The cement will warm the soil, creating a micro-climate perfect for the heat-loving herbs–and maybe a few tomatoes as well. I may even plant some tomatoes in big pots and install them on the walkway. Try something new every year. That’s my motto . . . one of them, anyway.

One of the most fun aspects of gardening is the opportunity for experimentation and change. When you use your imagination and creativity to solve problems and engage your brain in a “use-what-you-have” type of game, the possibilities are endless. As I dug up the edging rocks and threw them into the wheelbarrow, I pondered what to do with them. In the olden days, farmers dug boulders and rocks from the soil and used then to create beautiful and practical walls. Some are still standing two hundred years later. In my neck of the woods, tumbled rock walls run all through the mixed pine and hardwood woods, testament that this land was once cleared and used for pasture.

Mini-wall between the beeches

We have one of these tumbled-down walls edging our property near the road. In some places, the rocks have disappeared altogether. In others, soil and humus have filled in the spaces between the old boulders, and a few hardy rosa rugosas manage to bloom there every June for a week or so.

In the picture above, you can see where I’ve filled in the space between two of the larger boulders with some of my smaller, garden-variety rocks, creating a sculpture of sorts. Eventually, I will haul in some soil and compost and put a shade garden in front of it. Maybe someday I’ll tackle that entire wall, scrape away the soil, and replace the tumbled rocks, but for now I simply enjoy it the way Europeans enjoy their ancient ruins–as a connection and reminder of a past faded into history.

Rocks as mulch

In this sandy, shady spot, I’ve used small rocks as a mulch. This area near my shade garden was mostly gravel from the driveway anyway, so I decided to fill it in with the rocks rather than try to rake the gravel away from perennials every year. Any rocks I found near the bleeding hearts, the hostas, the iris, the astilbe in this shady garden spot went to this section, creating a type of “rock pond” rather than the “rock stream” you sometimes see in home and garden magazines. A little hens-n-chicks succulent plant manages to survive in there, but it hasn’t grown or spread. I may need to clear a little space around it and give it a shot of compost-water this summer.

retaining wall

As you can see from this picture, I’ve used rocks to create a retaining wall in order to extend the edge of my front garden bed out past the end of my cape-style house. This allowed me to build up the soil and plant a lilac shrub at the corner, adding a kind of old, farmhouse touch to a newly-built structure. I under-planted the lilac with chives, rock geranium, and a few other perennials, and it is now one of my favorite sections of the garden. I do have to pull up the encroaching grass every year as well as manually pick out the ubiquitous dead beech leaves, but a fresh layer of rocks dug from the edging this year will help prevent the grass from poking through next spring.

These are just a few of the possible uses for rockscaping in the garden. A fabulous book I have in my gardening library called GARDENING MADE EASY by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall is an excellent resource for all things “garden.” In this book, Fearnley-Whittenstall included an entire chapter devoted to growing alpines, and I hope to use some of her ideas this summer in these stony areas in my garden.

So, already I’m committed to an herb border and an alpine rock garden as well as continuing with my square-foot gardening boxes. What new projects do you have planned for this summer? Stop by and share your enthusiasm and ideas . . . Outside the Box.